ST. LOUIS (AP) — A decades-old fight over school integration in Arkansas entered a federal appeals court Monday, with the state and three school districts tussling over whether taxpayers should still have to fund desegregation efforts that have cost the state more than $1 billion.
Attorneys for three Little Rock-area school districts told the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a lower court judge was wrong to cut off most of the $70 million a year in state payments they receive under a settlement reached more than two decades ago.
The state argued that the schools have had more than enough time — and money — to make needed changes and aren't using all the funding for its intended purpose. Assistant Attorney General Scott Richardson told the three-judge panel that the schools knew the payments would eventually have to end.
"That's something that's been discussed for years," Richardson said.
The fight to integrate Little Rock schools dates back to 1957, when nine black teenagers — with the protection of federal troops — walked into the all-white Central High School. In 1989, the state agreed to support busing students between the districts and several magnet schools to integrate the city's schools.
Under that settlement, the state is still giving about $70 million a year to the Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County districts for desegregation programs.
"Is it your position that it just goes on for the next 50 years?" U.S. Circuit Judge Michael Melloy asked Chris Heller, the attorney for Little Rock schools.
Heller said he didn't see desegregation payments as a "perpetual remedy," but argued that U.S. District Judge Brian Miller overstepped his authority when he ruled in May to end most of the payments.
Stephen Jones, attorney for the North Little Rock schools, accused Miller of not being clear in his ruling.
"It's difficult for us to respond to his criticisms when he doesn't tell us what they are," Jones argued said.
Melloy seemed sympathetic, asking: "Do you think the district court changed the goal post on you without alerting you in advance?"
"Yes," Jones replied.
The appeals court didn't make a ruling Monday, but it had halted Miller's ruling from taking effect in advance of the hearing. State education officials have said they expect desegregation payments to continue through the current school year.
The schools, which now serve about 50,000 students, have come a long way since the governor and hundreds of protesters famously tried to stop the Little Rock Nine. But thousands of white and black children are still bused to different neighborhoods every day under one of the nation's largest remaining court-ordered desegregation systems.
State lawmakers want to end the payments, saying the payments are wasteful, but the school districts argue that the money is still needed to fund programs such as magnet schools and voluntary busing. And some parents have reacted to the uncertainty about future payments by looking to enroll their children in charter or private schools.
In his May 19 ruling to end the payments, Miller accused the districts of delaying desegregation to continue getting state money.
Miller, describing himself as a "middle-aged black judge," concluded that "few, if any, of the participants in this case have any clue how to effectively educate underprivileged black children."
He pointed to continued problems with student achievement and discipline, particularly in Pulaski County, a suburban district that sends white students into Little Rock and North Little Rock.
The Pulaski County school district remains under court supervision for its desegregation obligations. It also has longstanding financial and management problems, and cycled through superintendents before the Arkansas Department of Education announced a state takeover in June.
Sam Jones, Pulaski County's attorney, acknowledged Monday that the district was behind in fulfilling its desegregation obligations, even as the district appealed Miller's decision to keep it under court supervision. "We readily acknowledge to this point that the county did not finish, or even commence" some of its desegregation proposals, he said.
The 8th Circuit is a familiar venue for the schools and Little Rock's desegregation issues. The court, including the legendary U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Sheppard Arnold, made several rulings that paved the way for the settlement that is still in effect. And one of Arnold's law clerks from 1989, D. Price Marshall, has succeeded Miller as the lower court judge now responsible for the case. Arnold died in 2004.
Wendy Parker, a professor at Wake Forest University, told The Associated Press this month that judges in other desegregation cases nationwide had signaled that "they feel it's time to move onto other issues." Melloy mentioned those comments Monday and made a suggestion.
"Maybe we're exhausted with this intransigence on the parts of the school boards, too," he said.
Merchant reported from Little Rock.